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What's in your olive oil?

(post, Judith Klinger)

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Even the most casual wine drinker probably knows the difference between a chardonnay and a white zinfandel.  If this is the case, why don’t the most passionate chefs or home cooks know more about their olive oil? Maybe the chefs know a brand name, but do they know what variety of olive is used? 

The concept of terroir or terrain or terreno (French-English-Italian) is frequently discussed with grapes and wine; why not with olive oil? If sun, soil and climate affect a grape, it stands to reason it would affect the flavor of an olive and it’s oil. 

Yesterday, I had a unique opportunity to discuss just this subject with Nicola Bovoli, a world renowned olive oil maker and oil taster. Nicola’s Vicopisanolio was selected by Gustiamo to be included in our Aroma Cucina CookVook Pantry Basket, so I jumped at the chance to listen to what he has to say about the oil he produces. 

Nicola’s Vicopisano oil is made exclusively with the ‘frantoio’ olive. Frantoio olives are as identifiable  with Tuscany as the sangiovese grape and Chianti wine. The frantoio is a medium to large olive, known for producing a fruity aromatic olive oil. It could be considered a ‘global’ varietal as its grown in diverse places such as Australia, Argentina and California, but according to Nicola, don’t expect it to taste the same.  In fact, Nicola thinks the oil from Mendoza would probably taste more like Tuscan oil than the same oil produced in Umbria because of the difference in climate. 
Vicopisano, located  between Lucca, Livorno and Pisa enjoys a particular micro climate where it benefits from the sea breezes, generally congenial weather and not a lot of natural pests like flies.  That being said, in December of 2009, Nicola lost 30% of his olive trees in two hours due to intense cold. So, like any other natural harvest, it’s  subject to the whims of Mother Nature. 

Nicola tends to harvest his olives in early October which gives a totally different flavor than if they are harvested more mature. His oil has notes of artichoke, just cut grass, with a lovely balance of bitter and ‘piccante’.  Piccante means spicy, but to me it means that pleasant little tickle you get at the back of your throat when you taste this oil. 

For his Vicopisano extra virgin olive oil, he uses only the frantoio olive because he feels that mixing olives gives the oil an ‘artifical’ flavor. He calls mixing the olives an ‘artificial intervention’.  As he describes it, he wants his oil to be exactly what nature wants to give us. Each year it will taste different, and each year he’s convinced it’s the best he ever tasted. This is pure zest for life speaking, an understanding that comes from sharing the seasons with the olives. There is something ‘connected’ about knowing that you’ve shared the same heat, rain and fog with these olives. Unlike wine that needs time to be aged, the oil is at its peak of flavor as soon as it’s pressed. 

While this obsession with olive oil might be considered another example of food elitism, it’s not elitism as much as an expression of place and time. Nicola Bovoli has the good fortune to be in a place that produces extraordinary olive oil, and he wants to share his good fortune and have people understand what they are tasting. If that’s elitism, I’m all for it. 

Next post: the nuts & bolts of harvesting, storing and using extra virgin olive oil. 

Nicola’s Bovoli’s Olio Novello from the 2010 harvest is now available at and is part of the Aroma Cucina Pantry Basket that is filled with premium quality ingredients that will have you Cooking Simply: The Italian Way!